Role of Students in the Process of Economic Development

One of the founding motivations of the Two Dollar Challenge (TDC) was to create favorable conditions for students to directly engage themselves in the process of economic development.  My students at the University of Mary Washington and I had used the Two Dollar Challenge to raise the seed capital for our own micro-financial institution – La Ceiba (www.laceibamfi.og) – in the spring of 2008.  Last year, TDC launched its national Poverty Awareness Program.  Over 15 campuses across the country participated and raised awareness about global poverty and funds for their various development initiatives.  Like La Ceiba some of those initiatives were also student led and operated.  Yet, as a number of my La Ceiba students prepared for graduation last spring, I was forced to confront the possible limitations of student-led development programs; namely, the instability caused by turnover.  

Necessarily, with the success of our Poverty Action Program last year came the weight of responsibility.  How would those other student-led initiatives survive graduation?  And, if they did not survive it, as an economist, I had to recognize the lost opportunity; namely, the awareness, funds and passion generated for a student-led initiative that failed could have been generated for an established non-profit organization.  How many mothers, fathers, sons and daughter will remain mired in poverty because these scarce resources were not allocated to an established non-profit?

The TDC Team decided to approach this dilemma the following way:

1. Pilot a Preferred Partner Program: We decided to partner with an established NGO. One that we know will make the most effective use of any and all resourced garnered through this partnership.  This year’s partner is Opportunity International (

2. Continue to engage students in the process of economic development by supporting their development initiatives. 

3. Continuously ask ourselves and others the following two questions:

Q1: Why do we believe that student engagement will hasten the end of poverty?  In other words, what is the theory of change or the causal chain of reasoning that links student engagement and the end of poverty?

Q2: How do we go about structuring student engage  ment so that we maximize those benefits while minimizing the potential harm? How do you make student engagement both effective and responsible?

We would appreciate your thoughts on these two questions.

The most ready answer is that student engagement leads to a better informed citizenry that can advocate for policy changes as young adults.  They may even choose a career in the area of global poverty.  However, that effect is distant and I think a bit tenuous.  Is there not something more immediate?  Given the potential harm that can attend student engagement with impoverished communities, I think there has to be more than that.  If there is, then…


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn

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